A reefer-endum by voter-legislators and party flip-flops. Which way is up in Augusta?

Photo courtesy Fotolia/TNS

Photo courtesy Fotolia/TNS

Mike: Between marijuana, bears, and electoral reform, it seems Maine voters are doing the lawmaking over the next two years. Should we just abolish the Legislature?

Cynthia: No way! Who but the Maine Legislature would make it easier for angry young men to carry loaded concealed weapons into bars that stay open until 2 a.m.?

Mike: I’m sure angry young men and happy old women alike will take advantage of these new laws — ever been to The Senator or You Know Whose Pub? But while opening the bars late may constitute a constitutional “emergency,” some of these complicated referendum questions are — to quote Joe Biden — a big effin’ deal. Is a statewide up-or-down vote really the best way to pass complex laws?

Cynthia: The Constitution says I have a right to keep and bear arms — and put referendum questions on the ballot. If you have a problem with that, blame the Founding Fathers.

Had the Founding Mothers been consulted, not every crack pot would be armed with a concealed weapon, legislating would be better organized and lawmakers who throw tantrums spanked and sent to bed without supper.

What don’t you like about the citizen referendum process, anyway? Too much reading on election day?

Mike: John Adams wrote about despotism of the petticoat — maybe your scenario is what he had in mind. But you can’t blame the referendum process on founders; it was only added to our constitution in 1907.

What I don’t like about it is that we’ve gone too far afield. Citizen-initiated referenda began as an extraordinary check on an unresponsive government. But putting everything on the ballot provides political cover, enabling politicians to pass on tough decisions. And if they won’t make tough decisions, why elect them?

Cynthia: Referendum questions are about jobs, Mike. Hundreds of people are employed to gather signatures and make up nasty stuff to put on bumper stickers and postcards. Passionate and otherwise unemployed political science majors “work” doing “messaging” and raising money so they can later be appointed to a high-level post in the Department of Health and Human Services.

And besides, its the Republicans who want to ask voters to amend the Constitution to prevent an increase in income taxes without a two-thirds vote in the Legislature. Can’t Republicans just vote against unfair tax increases like the Democrats routinely do?

Mike: Don’t misunderstand me — I’m not opposing all popular votes, especially on simple, foundational issues like the authority to tax. I am objecting to pages of regulatory minutiae on electoral finance and bear management being decided upon through bumper stickers.

As for the proposed amendment, it does little to control taxes. Tax hikes are almost always contained in budgets, and Maine budgets almost always require a two-thirds vote. Majority budgets exist, but only because Democrats refuse to compromise.

If we’re pushing fundamental constitutional change to voters, let’s get a clear up-or-down on abolishing the income tax and leave the minutiae to Augusta. If it’s yes, the Legislature will need to go to work. If it is “no,” Democrats can say “I told you so” and put the issue to bed “without supper.”

Cynthia: Wait a minute — Democrats are finally caving in to a TABOR-like constitutional amendment offered by Republicans that would require a two-thirds vote by the Legislature to raise taxes, and House Republicans don’t like it?

But Senate Republicans won’t agree with Gov. LePage and Democrats to reduce income taxes by broadening the sales tax base because they campaigned against that in 2010?

How’s this for an up or down referendum question: has the Republican Party gone completely nuts?

Mike: Strategery. I’ll give your side credit; they negotiate the budget and beat the snot out of each other behind closed doors, then come out bloody, but unified. Republicans like their brawls public.

But this too shall pass. Ken Fredette led the charge to override the governor’s budget veto two short years ago, while Mike Thibodeau held the line. Six years ago, Justin Alfond and Mark Eves were voting for tax reform that broadened the sales tax while lowering income taxes on “the rich.” I’m not sure anyone in Augusta gets strong marks for consistency.

Cynthia: When government shuts down it’s consistently Republicans’ fault. Recently Washington closed shop in 2013 thanks to Ted Cruz and the Tea Party, and it was the GOP that shut things down in 1995 and 96.

In Maine, Republicans shut down government in 1991 and by the looks of it, it will be on your party’s watch this year, too. Democrats look good this session because they are doing good.

I just thought of another good referendum question: Is Maine open for business?

Mike: Once the Legislature adjourns, we might very well be.